Linear vs. Non-Linear

I had a history teacher in high school, (god rest him, as he has since died.) Smart enough man, but by the time my class year rolled around I think he had started to phone in a few things as a teacher.

For example, the last class I took from him dealt with America in the 1960s. But virtually every single day the entire semester, he wheeled in the TV and popped in a movie. We’d take a quiz on the movie, but he rarely if ever lectured, took questions or, as I said, anything but put in a movie.

One such movie was All the President’s Men. If you’re unaware, it’s the story of Woodward and Bernstein cracking the Watergate story.

Watergate, as in 1974. During our America in the 1960’s class.

It takes about a week of classes to watch a movie of that length in 30 minute slices. Some of us called him on it, wondering when we would be getting back to the true theme of the class– the 1960’s.

His answer represented the most phoned-in moment of that phoned in class. He told us, “You can’t study history chronologically.”

Really? Are you serious, Mr. F? In essence, history studies, if nothing else, are the examination of sequences of events that lead into other sequences of events, thus shaping the world/nation. One could be as obtuse as humanly possible, and would still be forced to conclude that if nothing else in the world did, history does in fact have to be studied chronologically.

What he really was saying of course was that that was the movie he had in stock for that week, and we were going to watch it, so he had to do no work.

That absurd cop-out annoys me to this day. But it does get me to thinking about linear story telling.

My own writing is almost always told in near linear chronology. It may meander sometimes, and I’ve employed the occasional flashback scene, but just about all of my fiction is moving ever-forward in time. (However time is defined in that universe.) I am not a fan of multiple or conflicted timelines in fiction. I enjoy a novel far less when it does this, and hence it would be unfair of me to try to write it for my readers on a regular basis.

This is my counter to people who mention that life isn’t lived in a linear faction, so our fiction shouldn’t exist that way either: as humans we can invoke memories or visualize futures. We can be short of information and discover it out of sequence. We even might not know what day/time it is at any given moment. Yet no matter how we collect the information of a story, we are, without fail, experiencing the process in forward moving linear time. One timeline at a time.

In certain select works, an out-of-order chronology may be required to tell the story properly. Time-jumping enhances certain sci-fi of course. On the whole, however, things happen in the order they happen, even if the characters or readers do not find out about them in the same order.


So, overall I stay away from non-linear, multiple timelines. HOWEVER, if you insist such tactics are necessary, I have a few humble suggestions as a reader who also writes.

  1. Limit the timelines. Three or four seems optimal to me, and that’s pushing it. If you have that many, you may be telling too many stories in one book. I feel like I am reading more than one novel at a time, and I never do that.
  2. Please label the timelines. If you insist on unfolding your story out of order among various eras, swallow your pride a bit and put what year I’m reading at the start of each chapter. It may cramp your style a bit, as some consider this “telegraphing,” but I’d really like to know right away where and when I am.
  3. The farther apart, the better. If timeline A is only two years before timeline B, and involves the same two people, (one dealing with how they met, and the other dealing with them being married) then I am super-likely to give up on your story. Again, labeling the chapter with what year it is helps, but even then, when events are that close and I have to set a book down for a day or two, it all blends together and I have to reread chapters. Don’t make me do that. A hundred years apart? Still tedious, but far easier to keep separate in my mind.
  4. Have a really, really, really good reason for doing it.  Don’t do it just because you thought it would be cool. If the story makes the same amount of sense told in linear fashion, it’s unnecessary to be non-linear at all. On the flip side, make each story so self-contained that it is impossible to confuse with any other timeline.
  5. Keep it year-based. I read a novel that not only jumped back and forth between years, but later on jumped back and forth within the same year. Out of order. Hopping back and forth between 1881 and 2003 is one thing. But hopping between 1881, and March of 2003, and January of 2003, and October of 2003? If the whole story is in 2003? Fine. But otherwise? I’m calling it…month-hopping is outlawed, and never makes the story better ever.

Experiment, of course. Do what your heart is telling you to do. And perhaps it my ASD’s literally-minded tendencies that propel my preference for chronological correctness. But if you’re on the fence, and you feel I’d be an intelligent reader, take my advice to heart most of the time.

At least in our current timeline.


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